When I was little I used to think my Gramma Erma was magically. She had the magic power of profound hospitality.
I learned to cook from her. She taught me to pray into the food so that it nourishes the bodies and souls of those who will play their part of our intertwined lives. I do that in my current ministry. Those administrative, sometimes tedious pieces that make the machine run, I pray into those. Those strategies that I start to form into plans to pass on to those building our faith, I pray into those and then wish them well in the capable new hands that may see them into fruition.
Gramma Erma also kept an empty chair at the dining table because you never know who will show up hungry. And you know what? More often than not we had an unexpected visitor join our feast. And then she would add another chair. It was such a giddily anticipated ritual during the holidays – who was coming? What stories would they bring?
And yet, I hear this sometimes from leaders in congregations… “We don't need to grow. We need to serve the people in our congregation better.”
Here’s what I want to say to folks who are harboring this notion… We are a covenantal faith tradition. That covenant requires growth as a religious imperative. We are a faith tradition with radical Universalism at our core, which requires a joyful invitation. It requires we pull up an empty chair and anticipate someone hungry or ready to serve or both in one. And when they come, it requires we look deeply in their eyes and say, “We’ve been waiting for you. Welcome home!”
In some youth circles there is a rule called Robbie’s Rule. Robbie Seager is now a young adult and the inspirer of Robbie’s Rule. The rule requires that in any circle an accessible place be kept open for the next person coming. The circle doesn’t know who that person will be, only that they will surely come. And when they do, another space will be made available… and so on. I can testify that this norm changes hearts, minds, and expectations. It is the embodiment of my Gramma Erma’s hospitality and the Jesuit Radical Hospitality.
This year, please try this. An empty chair, any empty place with the spirit of invitation swirling in and out of the open spaces throughout the circle. Whether you are in a coffee hour huddle or a parent discussion group or a social justice planning session. Keep a space open, even if it is symbolic. At committee meetings and at board meetings, keep a chair open knowing that our own place is time-limited, transient. Others are coming who will sit in the place we once sat.
Every morning recite this prayer given to my home congregation by the Rev. Ken Jones. I think it exemplifies our covenant beautifully.
I light this chalice (of my life) in deep respect for the mystery and holiness of life;
With honor and gratitude for those who came before;
With compassion and love for those who dwell among us;
And with hope and faith for the generations yet to come.
This year, consider using this prayer as a reminder that we are not alone. Once people are seated, pull a chair up. Pull a chair up for that person yet to come. Pull up another chair for the elders who came before. And consider saying a prayer for the next person sitting in your chair.
May this year be filled with magic and radical welcome.